Party lines aren’t the only difference between the candidates in the high-stakes State Senate race between incumbent Olga Mendez and Councilmember Jose M. Serrano. For starters, Mendez boasts of delivering state budget booty to her district, while Serrano brings a rep as a thoughtful advocate. But why talk substance? Politics is about personality, and voters in East Harlem, Roosevelt Island and the South Bronx are blessed with a spectacle of opposites.
For the Democrats: The shy guy. Last Thursday, energized tenant activists gathered at City Hall to support the Tenant Empowerment Act. The landmark legislation would give residents first dibs on buildings whose landlords seek to leave the Section 8 and Mitchell-Lama affordable housing programs. Serrano is a co-sponsor, and he’s made housing central to his campaign. The district he’s running for has more apartments in those programs than any other in the city. Serrano’s staff, say advocates working with building residents, has persistently aided tenants and co-op owners—seeking a tax break for a low-income co-op, for instance.
Candidate Serrano showed up at the tenant event—and didn’t say a word. Alongside him, eight council members, a state senator and congressperson did. By the time Councilmember Miguel Martinez promised the crowd, “With the new senators coming to the State Senate, we’re going to see changes!” Serrano had walked away.
“Any council member who wanted to speak was free to speak,” said A. Solomon Turkel, a spokesperson for Alan Gerson, the sponsor of Intro. 186. “He was not prevented from speaking.” In response, the candidate demurred, “I was there to show support.”
Serrano’s backers acknowledge he stays out of the spotlight. “Jose’s such a shy, sweet guy,” said Michael McKee of Tenant PAC, which is phone-banking to get out the vote for Serrano. “He doesn’t even act like a pol.”
Rival Olga Mendez is more than a pol; the 11-term senator is the grand dame of her district.
Mendez said she wouldn’t be coming to a candidate forum Wednesday at La Resurrección United Methodist Church in Morrisania. Her sister, the moderator said, was in the hospital. So Mendez’ entrance to the crowded seats a few minutes later was spectacular even by the senator’s flamboyant standards.
During a question on unemployment, the chant “Olga! Olga!” reverberated into the church from outside. She had arrived. Hands flew up holding “Democrats for Olga Mendez” signs. The senator walked slowly up the church aisle, dancing to the shouts, shaking hands and kissing her supporters. When she got to the front, the moderator informed the audience that Mendez could not stay. She had to get back to her sick sister.
So Mendez gave her closing statement, in Spanish. Many did not understand her, but the gist was clear: Serrano won’t get anything done because he’s a Democrat. Serrano invited her to stay to hear his own remarks, but Mendez would have none of it. The senator smiled knowingly and said, in English: “What difference would that make?”